For the Time Being —
Notes from the Developmental Minister
I’m writing aboard the Sunset Limited, currently traveling through the bayous of southwestern Louisiana. Chuck and I are returning from the 2017 General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), held by the banks of the Mississippi at the mammoth New Orleans Convention Center. Our bellies are full of muffulettas and gumbo, our ears are full of the strains of traditional jazz, and our hearts are full of the wonder that was this year’s GA.
Traveling by train gives me time to reflect on what happened there. This time last year, few could anticipate the dramatic changes that would alter the face of the world at large, such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Even fewer could have foreseen the changes within our religious Association: The vigorous protests when a Latina religious educator was passed over for a regional lead position, and the abrupt resignations of President Peter Morales and two white male UUA executives in response. The decision to appoint three interim co-presidents, all people of color, including former UUA president Bill Sinkford, Starr King professor Sofia Betancourt, and psychologist Leon Spencer. The call for White Supremacy Teach-ins, in which 700 congregations participated. And finally, the revelation that beloved moderator Jim Key was gravely ill, and his death a few weeks later.
Thus our meeting began with mixed emotions. There was deep grief, combined with trepidation that GA would erupt in angry confrontation. But there was also hope that something new and life-giving might emerge from the crucible.
It’s too soon to predict the lasting impact of GA 2017, but my sense is that it an important shift has happened, from which there’s no going back. Racial justice was the overarching theme of the week, beginning with two days of training in “Undoing Racism by the veteran organizers of the Peoples’ Institute, and culminating with the riveting Ware Lecture by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization working to combat racist practices in the criminal penal system.
I’ve attended General Assemblies for many years, starting in Boston in 1978. This year’s seemed relatively free of the parliamentary maneuvering, “fake fights,” and general white defensiveness that have marked so many past GAs. There seemed a greater willingness of Unitarian Universalists of color to engage with white Unitarian Universalists, and a greater willingness of white Unitarian Universalists to listen, even when it was painful. There was also a greater sense of “we” over “I.” I credit many people for this, most notably the three co-presidents, all of whom combine deep spiritual grounding with a fierce passion for justice. The container they created, supported by many others, allowed for transformation.
I can’t conclude without mentioning two additional signs of change. First, our church was recognized for its work in creating access for people with disabilities, becoming certified as an Access and Inclusion Ministries (AIM) congregation. Credit for this goes to Jan Thompson and the EqUUal Access Team, who worked tirelessly to make it happen. Second, for the first time ever, the UUA has elected a female president! She is the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who has served our Phoenix congregation for the last nine years, leading them in a significant Immigration Justice ministry. As she was born in 1975, her election represents a most welcome generational as well as gender shift. Her election, and the presence of so many youth and young adults at GA, help guarantee our faith a bright future.